When I decided to become an author, I interviewed dozens of fellow practitioners, both traditionally published and independents, and many who were still seeking that magical path to publication. Here’s what I learned.
Of the roughly 100,000 books published each year, about 800 become bestsellers.
The New York Times bestseller list has 15 slots. Only about 4 in 10 last more than one week on that list. Authors who make it to that rarified summit, sell between 10,000 and 100,000 books. 80% end up closer to 10k in sales.
Few authors, who secure a publishing deal, recoup much more than their advance check. And 15% of that check goes to the agent you got after enduring hundreds of rejections.
The people who are making money in Publishing today are the support teams; agents, editors, cover designers, and public relations people. I earn more money supporting authors than I do writing. Authors are expendable commodities, and one success is no guarantee of a long tail career.
I just interviewed traditionally published author David Putnam. He wrote over 30 books before getting picked up by a publisher. His last ten have been among his most successful.
An established NYT bestselling author I know with 19 hits and a huge fanbase recently had an 80,000 page manuscript rejected. “Start over,” she was told. “We don’t think this one will sell.”
Once you throw in with a publisher, you effectively lose control of your art. You work with their editors, their cover designers, and the publisher ultimately decides what gets printed, how many copies are printed, and what, if any public relations support you receive.
As my friend and best selling author, Marshall Karp likes to say, writing books is a “get rich, slow scheme.”
Companies like Amazon, BookBaby, Ingram Spark and Lulu have made it easy for individuals to turn their stories into published books. That’s the tip of a very deep iceberg of effort. For indies, the publishing part, it turns out, is the easy part.
The independently published authors I know who are making a reasonable living as writers typically have an inventory of over 30 titles in circulation. They spend a significant percentage of their revenue on advertising, and must constantly crank out new continent to keep an audience attention.
You will work harder than you have ever worked in your life, and there is no guarantee of a reasonable financial return on your investment.
My goal was to retain as much control over my destiny as possible. If I was going to fail, it would be on my shoulders. Agents are great, but I didn’t like the prospect of begging somebody to let me give them 15% of my income as one of many in their stable. I also wanted to partner with editors, cover artists and support people who knew their paychecks were coming from me and were focused accordingly. This required a lot of work on the front end to interview and experiment with different team members to create a unit that was both fun and profitable for all concerned. I chalked up the money I spent in the beginning as education expense.
Now, about the money. My books cost me about $2500 to create, not including the value of my time to write them and promote them. That number does not include the cost of a Spanish translation or an audiobook narration.
I learned that, although Jessica Ramirez is a brilliant protagonist, a beacon of diversity, and an ideal Netflix star, an unknown 68-year-old white guy doesn’t have much credibility in that space, no matter how well he happens to tell her stories. I am three books into the Jessica Series and don’t expect to make a profit until I’ve written at least six, perhaps as many as twenty, if I live that long.
My most profitable books have narrowly defined target audiences who come back to my titles again and again. The challenge in that space is writing fast enough to satisfy ephemeral demand and to work with influencers who impact purchase decisions.
The back end work as an indie is itself a full time job. You either do it or hire it out.
Somewhere, among all of those administrative tasks, you learn to become a character focused, plot driven content creation machine. No writers block allowed. You live for the fleeting moments when the muse sings and her words flow through your fingers into a an infrequent musical sentence.
And you know what? I love it. I love the freedom, the fear, the community, and the stories. I do a lot of other things to fund this exquisite addiction, and wouldn’t have it any other way.
I live for the rare emails from young Latina girls, who want to grow up to be like Jessica, from young men and women on the autism spectrum, who realize they have the capacity to become a medical examiner like Joey Price, and for the texts and phone calls from my beloved, lesbian friends, who are certain that their best partners have told me their deepest, darkest secrets, transformed by me into Alexandra Clark’s wise-ass dialogue.
Life is storytelling, and I thank the universe every day that storytelling is my life.